It’s been a while, but last night I made it back to a Tenx9 in the Black Box. We heard tales of poltergeists, dour Scots, Irishmen genuflecting to the Queen Mother and Indian cremations. It’s like the theatre of the absurd, and wonderful in every way. Here’s my story, should you like to read it, about my bowel issues, (a theme which my regular readers will be well used.)
Tenx9, Theme- Welcome
‘Please God, let them have at least two toilets,’ was the prayer I fervently said, over and over, as I took the bus with classmates, on my first ever visit to the Free State. My school, Glenlola Collegiate in Bangor, had long been running exchanges with Loreto College in Dublin. During the spring term we would welcome visiting girls to our school, their long maroon skirts reaching their ankles. They made our royal blue jumpers and navy skirts look stylish, rakish even, and for that we were grateful. ‘Awk, would you not come?’ asked one of my pals, when initially I said no.
As a teen, I was most self-conscious. Prone to spots, I feared anyone seeing me before I’d applied my tinted moisturiser. I was also inclined towards constipation, and as a result, very attached to my own toilet. One of the few perks of living in our large but ramshackle house, was that the toilet was at the end of a long corridor. One could disappear for quite some time, without being hurried about their business.
But then Mrs White, our history teacher, asked to see me. Quite sniffy she was too. ‘I don’t understand why a keen young historian like yourself wouldn’twant to visit Dublin,’ she said. I couldn’t very well explain my badly behaved bowels to her, so reluctantly I agreed.
Being an Ulster Protestant, most of my holidays had been spent on a farm where my aunts and uncles lived, near Garvagh. Hence, when the bus trundled into Dublin, the green post boxes struck me as quite different altogether. At Loreto Convent, you couldn’t look right or left without encountering a crucifix or a statue of the Virgin Mary. There were even a few nuns gliding around in their robes. We stood, huddled in our crowd, like cobalt coloured cattle, to be paired off with the Dublin girls. My partner, when I met her, seemed a nice, if reserved sort. I was however, more worried about her bathroom situation, than her character.
I hadn’t had a relaxed bowel movement in years. In hindsight, I didn’t do much to help myself. In those days, you didn’t run round clutching of bottle of Evian, (other water providers are, of course available) lest you dehydrate in minutes. I sated my thirst on a slurp of tea at breakfast, a carton of Um Bongo at lunch, and little else. I was uptight and prone to angst. At school, I fretted continually over exams, and in my spare time, by way of recreation, I hung out at the Pentecostal Church. This was another source of anxiety as I was brainwashed into believing that anyone, who wasn’t a happy-clappy born again, or who didn’t namedrop God or Jesus into every conversation, needed saving, and I had to do my bit.
At the time of my Loreto trip, the Elimists were having a mission, called JIM, or Jesus in Me. They had a bus, which didn’t go anywhere, but parked up on Main Street Bangor, and enthusiastic teens harangued passers-by to climb aboard, drink Mellow Birdsfrom polystyrene cups and embrace the Word of God. The testimonies of some visiting speakers featured in a magazine, which one Saturday morning, a few of us were conscripted into delivering. A former Mafia hit man, who’d turned to God, was expected to bring in a big crowd. How he’d managed to avoid being gunned down, given the Mafia law of ‘blood in, blood out,’ was a miracle in itself. We were also welcoming a German popstar, who since seeing the light, had been cured of his gayness, got married and sired a child.
So off I went to Dublin with my ‘Jesus in Me’ badge firmly pinned to my blazer. Jesus was DEFINITELY listening to my prayers because when my new friend and I hopped on the Dart for Howth, she told me I was to have HER bedroom, all to myself, complete with an en suite. We’d had a busy day; and by the time we reached her house, I thought, just maybe, I could squeeze out a movement. However, my host mother intercepted me and insisted I drink some tea. Then she asked about my badge. I spoke, for quite some time, about Jesus and our mission and His speedy response to prayer. I’m sure I saw a flicker of relief in her eyes as she showed me to my bedroom. ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph,’ she said, (at which my eyes nearly fell out of my head: they really DID need me in Dublin,) ‘I forgot to say: they’re STILL fixing the FECKING water pipes on the street. ‘No showers in the morning! A quick wash will have to do you!’ ‘Don’t worry,’ I assured her, I’m very eco-conscious,’ ‘and whatever you do,’ she went on, ‘DON’T FLUSH THE TOILET.’
I literally felt the motion that had been brewing, shoot back up inside my large intestine. What? Not only defecate in someone else’s house but LEAVE it there? It was all I could do to manage a modest pee. The mere thought of it clogged me up even further.
You would have thought, that a year later, when I decided to do French for A level, that I’d have bypassed a trip. But no. I was a slow learner. Off I went, this time to Rennes, a trip that took two flights, the latter of which was so tiny it was like ‘Fisher Price My First Plane’. Miraculously, I quelled the urge to convert anyone on board as we shuddered and juddered our way to France. My bowels remained steadfast throughout. It turns out, GCSE French teaches you eff all, other than how to say your name and what your parents did for a living. It was EXTREMELY stressful staying with a family with virtually no English. They were, however, exceptionally kind, and keen on sharing their love of La Cuisine Française. I hoovered up the baguettes and pasta and cheese with tremendous gusto. With my mouth thus engaged, I didn’t have to mumble incomprehensible French, just nod ‘mmmm, ‘c’est très bon’, like the village simpleton. It was a win-win situation. Except, of course, for the inevitable. I got very blocked up. Before this impasse, I had been smiley, if perhaps, a tad gormless, but a change in my demeanour occurred, as my stomach became bloated and my smile forced.
‘Mais qu’est elle a?’ my French Maman asked her daughter, in whom I’d managed to confide. Upon learning the nature of my ailment, Maman saw this as the greatest challenge to the French since The Occupation. Off to the supermarché she went, and came home laden with prunes. ‘Il faut les manger!’ she said, pressing them into my hands. Every time I ventured near the bathroom she would look up, expectantly, only to retreat, deflated, when I shook my head.
When family friends came to visit, Maman introduced me thus: ‘Voici Helen; elle est très, très constipée’. They discussed my condition at length, in grave, sombre tones. I rang my mum. ‘A coffee and a cigarette used to do the trick for your Aunt Nelly,’ she advised. As usual, The Mothership had a point. After 5 long days, I forced out a poo. I had worried that at that stage, I might actually block the toilet, but what I produced was rather feeble. Still, Maman’s reaction made up for it, and I suspect the arrival of a first grandchild would have been greeted with similar enthusiasm.
Happily, my issues were sorted for good after a good bout of dysentery in Madagascar 4 years later. On the odd occasion, I’ve been known to LONG for a dose of constipation. Now, it’s my turn to be a host mummy, and a steady stream of students and au pairs have passed through our doors. I offer them plenty of water and give them exclusive access to the downstairs bathroom. I still think back with fondness to my host families, who welcomed this highly strung teenager, whose head was as knotty and strangulated as her innards, and offered her kindness, or as in the case of my French Maman, an espresso and a Marlboro Light.